ST. LOUIS • Missouri’s official contribution to the 1904 World’s Fair was a grand Romanesque building on the crest of Government Hill in Forest Park. The statue atop its golden dome towered 180 feet above the lawn.
The Missouri Building was the largest in the cluster of structures representing states at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Its auditorium seated 1,000 people. It had an office for the governor, living quarters for the fair’s directors and an early air-conditioning system. It was filled with art and artifacts from the state archives and 10,000 books from public libraries.
The building cost $160,000 to erect and furnish, roughly $4 million in today’s dollars. Shortly after 6 p.m. on Nov. 19, 1904, Lee Jones was working in the kitchen beneath the auditorium.
The fairgrounds outside were jammed with people enjoying 70-degree weather. In two weeks, the fair would close. A boiler exploded in the kitchen. Jones shouted for help and grabbed a fire extinguisher. Fellow employee J.T. Nixon joined the fight, but the fast-growing fire crackled through the kitchen ceiling into the auditorium. Nixon, choking from smoke, was dragged to safety by another man. Billowing smoke and clanging fire wagons drew thousands of fairgoers to the hilltop.
The Missouri Building, like so many on the fairgrounds, was made of wood slathered in a compound called staff, a mix of plaster and fiber. With the building’s rotunda serving as a flue, the blaze grew quickly. Firefighters and military personnel assigned to the fair did double duty, fighting the blaze and retrieving artifacts while there was time.
A cry went up to save the bell. Missourians had raised money to cast a silver ship’s bell for the Missouri, a Maine-class battleship that was commissioned in 1903. The bell was on display in the west wing of the building, to be delivered to the Navy when the fair ended. Before fire reached that wing, a squad of Marines went inside for the bell.
“They made for it with a rush,” the Post-Dispatch reported. “As many hands as could seized the supporting framework, and then, with a ‘yo-heave,’ and a few excited sailor words, they marched out of the building with it, to the thunderous applause of the crowds.”
Rescuers saved most of the books and paintings before the burning dome collapsed. Firefighters stopped the fire before it could destroy the west wing. Four men suffered injuries. In June 1905, the bell was delivered to the battleship. In 1909, the city built the World’s Fair Pavilion that stands on the site of the Missouri Building.
Also that year, the battleship took part in President Theodore Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet” world cruise. The ship, the second of four Navy vessels to bear Missouri’s name, was scrapped in 1922.